This article was originally published in April 2010
"Me and My Music!" - Interview with Ishfaq
Written by Imran Mirza
Have you heard Ishfaq's remix of Jazzanova's 'I Can See'?
I can't think how many times I've said that over the past few weeks. I stumbled upon it myself via a mixtape which it totally stole the show on, and was blown away by the incredible new arrangement. there aren't many that can claim to do justice to reworking a Jazzanova record, but my friends – Ishfaq is one of them.
Born in the UK, the producer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist, who at one time or another has been able to call Bexley, Amsterdam, Dublin and Croatia his home, has a genuinely infectious love of music in all its genres and forms. His wide variety of production is a sublime blend of styles from jazz, to soul and electronica, so as well as his immaculate production and musicianship on Stee Downes’ ‘All In A Day’ album (available on Sonar Kollektiv), Ishfaq’s remix catalogue is as varied and vast as fans could hope for – including reworkings of songs by D’angelo, The Roots, Jazzanova and Bugz in the Attic. (For real treats, visit www.ishfaq.co.uk where a selection of his production is available for free download.)
Finding out about incredible new talent is the primary focus here at Liberation Frequency, so Ishfaq’s music are true gems in our eyes, and he’s an artist we’re proud to bring to your attention.
LIBERATION FREQUENCY: Which artists have had the biggest effect on shaping your music?
ISHFAQ: At different points I've been inspired by different artists – sometimes just for a short period, other times leaving a lasting impression. But the ones that continue to inspire me on a continual basis would be Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and D'angelo. More recently I've been feeling Georgia Anne Muldrow, Kutiman, K15 and Dimlite. Dimlite is easy my favourite producer of the last few years, man is a genius. I love that he can create something so way-out that still has a groove and a feel that just grabs you. A perfect example would be ‘Ravemond's Young Problems’ – it's a masterpiece – I love the choice of sounds, it's so all over the place but still completely together. K15 did a wicked EP with a great singer from New Zealand, LP – it's called ‘A New Path’ – that still blows my mind with its spacey minimalism – really brings me on a journey when I listen to it. Regarding getting me on a certain path, being given ‘Mulligan Meets Monk’ by my grandmother when I was in my teens got me out of heavy metal and into jazz. She had no idea what it was, just found it on top of a wardrobe in her brother’s house so gave it to me as she "knew I liked records"! But you need to hear it on vinyl – I got it on CD too and the sound is nowhere near as good. On the vinyl they sound like they're in the same room as you.
LF: When did you realise music was something you wanted to pursue?
I: I think I always wanted to play an instrument for as long as I can remember. When I was in school, around age 12, I really wanted to play either the violin or the saxophone, no idea why. I wanted to take lessons at school, but my mother thought it was just a fad (like my skateboarding, haha) and that I wouldn't see it through, so she refused! Eventually I sold my Sega Megadrive and bought a crappy electric guitar for my 15th birthday, off some guy in school, and never looked back since. Now if I have money in my pocket and see an instrument I don't have, I'll buy it, and try and figure it out later.
LF: You’ve lived in the UK, Dublin, Amsterdam and Croatia – what keeps you on the move?
I: Well I was born in the UK, in Bexley, and lived in that area until I was 14. Then my mother, who is Irish and always wanted to move back to Ireland to live – eventually got her way and we upped and left. We moved to a small village called Camolin, in Wexford, which really is in the middle of nowhere. So I got to experience life from a completely different, ‘rural’ perspective. I then moved to Dublin when I was around 19, to get back to some city life. After living and working there for a few years I decided I wanted a change and moved to Amsterdam. And then after 2 years living there, I came on holiday to Croatia, fell in love with the place, and with the laid back way of life, and so I stayed.
LF: What makes you decide to tackle a song to remix, and how do you approach it?
I: It's always the vocal. If I hear a strong vocal, that can really hold its own without any music, then I really want to try and see where I can take it. Whenever possible I always try and NOT listen to the original tune until I have the bones of a remix done, as for one thing I don't like to be influenced by it, but also it's always cooler to compare mine with the original after it's completed. I use Cubase for production, and I generally import the vocal and try find the rough tempo first. I'll loop a nice section of the vocal – sometimes the chorus, sometimes the verse – whichever has the best flow – and I'll start to build up some drums around it. Once I have a rough beat down, I'll start to switch around the drum samples, trying out different sounds, and try and get something that sits nicely with the vocal. Then once I have that rolling nicely, I'll start to drop some rhodes chords on top, and just keep trying til something clicks. After that, it's usually the bassline, finding the right rhythm and sound, and then once I have the bones of something good, I'll spread that out over the whole tune and mark where the changes occur, and then start working on each part individually.
LF: I notice you were heavily involved with Stee Downes’ album, ‘All in a Day’ – can you tell us a little about what went into the project?
I: Yeah, I definitely ended up doing a lot more than was originally intended! I've known Stee for a long time, since meeting him through some live gigs in Dublin, and we lived and worked together in Amsterdam for a while too, so we've got a pretty long history together. The original plan was that Stee would start recording the parts for the album in Dublin, with session players, and then come out to me in Croatia, with a hard drive full of drums, horns and key parts. We would then sit down and use those ‘samples’ to make the tunes, with me adding the bass and guitar or whatever else was needed. But as it happened, he turned up with just an acoustic and a handful of notes. So, we had just under 3 weeks to try and get the whole thing recorded, from scratch, with me now playing everything.
We decided to try and tackle one song per day, and whatever wasn't finished within that day would be left and gone back to later. That's where the album title came from I think. So, I recorded everything here in my little apartment – moved all of my studio stuff into the living room – and used the bedroom as a vocal booth – there's so much stuff in there that there's no natural reverb, and the sound was quite well isolated. It was all done very unprofessionally really, pretty gung-ho, as I've had no formal training in music production, so I just went for what sounded best. But luckily I've pieced together a lot of equipment over the years, and we ended up using pretty much all of it. I got a nice Jazz guitar when I was in Seattle for the Red Bull Music Academy, and I borrowed a Fender Jazz bass off of a friend, as my bass is a bit beat up – although I used both of them in the end as the different sounds fit different songs better. So that helped give a lot of the songs that mellow sound. And of course my Rhodes played a big part in the overall sound – I love how the right Rhodes chords can completely lift a track. The hardest thing was getting the horn parts down. I have a trumpet and a saxophone, but I've never had any music lessons and rarely play them, so I did about 30 takes on each part and just chopped the best bits together, haha.
I continued working on it after Stee left, and eventually got all the tracks up to a finished state. The plan was then to send them over to Stee, who had arranged someone to mix them. But before that happened, I got a call from him saying that the Sonar Kollektiv guys needed one tune mixed down as a radio edit urgently, and could I do it. So, I did it for them, and then he got back to me and said that the mixing was good and to go ahead and mix the rest of the album! So, I did, again just going by what I thought sounded best – although I did try and read up on mixing techniques for that bit.
All in all, it was a lot of hard work, for no money, but I learned a hell of a lot from it, and have the satisfaction that I produced an album for Sonar Kollektiv. Which aint bad. Only thing that kind of got my goat was that I wasn't sent a copy of the album when it was released – my mother had to buy me a copy for Christmas before I could hear the final mastered version. But I was eventually sent a copy of the CD, along with a 12" of remixes too (including my extended version of ‘What's Wrong With Groovin’ and my remix of ‘Put a Little Love in My Soul’). And I much prefer to get something out on vinyl, so it's all good.
LF: What bands or artists would you love to collaborate with?
I: D'angelo, because he's such a wicked singer. But I've also been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately, so maybe I might hit up some rappers to get busy with some laid back jazzy stuff, who knows. I'd love to do something with Mos Def, or Dudley Perkins.
LF: What's your favourite album, and why?
I: Without a doubt it's ‘Voodoo’ by D'angelo. Still love it every bit as much now as when I first heard it. Has everything I love about music - amazing vocals, crisp production, great instrumentation, fat drums, great horn-lines, amazing bass grooves...the list goes on. I'm still patiently waiting for the follow-up...
The reason I have such love for it is this. For me an album can have 3 things to make it a winner. First and foremost are good songs – not catchy hits, but growers, songs that take some time for you to really appreciate them. Second is the production – I can get over the fact that maybe the songwriting isn't so great if the production is something special, and something that inspires me. And by production I mean everything – choice of instruments, programming, clever use of samples, the choice of overall sounds – drums, synths, bass, whatever. And thirdly, if I can get some clean samples off an album – if there's some drums rolling on their own for a bit, and I can take each hit as a one-shot – the snare, the kick and the hats – then I'll still be happy I bought it, even if the previous two conditions aren't met. Voodoo has all 3 of the above – and much more – so that's why it gets the number 1 spot.
LF: Who would be in your fantasy group lineup?
I: Herbie Hancock on keys, D'angelo on vocals, and me doing everything else.
LF: What are your thoughts on the MP3 generation?
I: Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not, but you need to go with the flow or risk being left behind. I personally think that vinyl sounds waaaaay nicer than any digital format. But records are big and awkward, so I do appreciate the portability of digital systems. I myself mix the two when I DJ – I bring a laptop and turntables – but it's a hell of a lot easier to just bring a laptop and a mixer than a heavy record bag, two turntables and a mixer.
On a personal listening level, I've found that I don't give new music as much of a chance as I used to. When I was younger and bought a record, or a CD for that matter, it was usually the only album that I would buy that month. So I HAD to listen to it, and fully digest it. Nowadays, there's so much music easily available, I find myself a little overwhelmed by it all, and don't seem to have the time to dedicate to fully comprehending an album.
But for sure I won't be passing down a hard drive of MP3s to my grand children – but, if they're lucky, they'll get my record collection (although they probably won't know what to do with it by that point in time!).
LF: What are your hopes and plans for the future?
I: I'm currently planning my own album. It's been in the works for a loooong time, and I'm constantly changing my mind as to what I want it to be, but I've got a pretty solid idea for it now, and I'm working on bringing a guest vocalist over to Croatia to record with me. I won't name any names in case I curse things and it doesn't happen, but it's a male soul singer, he's not too well known but definitely in a class of his own. I'll be playing most of the instruments, but I do want to get in a sax and trumpet player, to drop some horn parts and solos, and whatever other players I think I need to add any parts I can't do myself.
I've also been working a lot on getting my live thing together. I'm currently jamming with a few different bands here in Croatia, playing the MPC, bass, Kaoss pad and synth – pretty much working on a one man band thing – just trying to find the best way for me to do things in a live, on-the-fly improv kind of way, looping myself and stuff. But the plan is to find some good vocalists or players that can be the icing on the cake, and start doing some shows in my own name, so we'll see how that goes...it's hard out here to find decent singers or horn players that are into what I'm into. If I don't find anyone I think I might try doing a live remix project, with just a bunch of accapellas and me and my gear. And much beer.
Visit Ishfaq online at www.ishfaq.co.uk
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